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2008 Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism: Rev. Forrest Church

Presented by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations to Rev. Forrest Church

Forrest Church: master of the pulpit and the pen, spouse, father, pastor, theologian, scholar, lover of life—through your words, both spoken and penned, created over the course of your extraordinary thirty year career, you have called Unitarian Universalists to wrestle with the compelling questions of life, faith, human frailty, and death, "the dual reality of being alive and having to die."

Son of a brilliant Senator, you have been a true believer in American democracy and have inspired us, through your wisdom and insight on the intersection of civics and ethics, in So Help Me, God and God and Other Famous Liberals. Through it all, you have exuded not only hope for humankind but unstinting love.

Yours has been a journey of inspiration and spiritual challenge, marked by a zest for living, a puckish sense of humor, and undaunted optimism. In the pulpit of All Souls Church Unitarian in New York City and through your prolific writing and editing of more than two dozen books, you have challenged, cajoled, and prodded us to be more and better than we had been. Your list of achievements is long and storied, and includes authorship of those titles which now make up ‘required reading' lists for all who call themselves Unitarian Universalists: The Jefferson Bible, A Chosen Faith, An American Creed.

With courage and grace, you continue to minister to us now, as you share your journey through life into death, with the release of your ultimate work, Love and Death. Forrest Church, it is the honor of this, your chosen faith community, to celebrate your inspired ministry, your incisive and deeply moving artistry with words and ideas, and your ebullient and transcendent spirit, and to confer on you our highest honor, the Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. Your spirit makes manifest the essence of hope and courage through your enduring faith in the holy that lies within us all.

Roger Comstock, Chair
Rev. William Sinkford
Patricia Solomon

Forrest Church's Response

Thank you, Bill. On first reading your lovely, oh-so-generous words, I knew that anything I might say following such an encomium could only diminish its impact. Fortunately, at times like these, a taste of humble pie is high on the theological menu. After all, if pride is the number one sin, humility holds equal honor among the virtues.

The problem is, I am proud of this award, and don't feel particularly sinful for being so. I do on occasion, I must confess, embrace the convenient Emersonian tradition of unabashedly—pridefully if you will—contradicting myself, but this is not one of those times. For there are two very different kinds of pride. Black pride, Gay pride, even, in its way, Unitarian Universalist pride, are not sins when they bring people together. By its very definition, sin tears us apart. Sin divides us within ourselves, estranges us from others, and isolates us from the ground of our shared being.

The sin of pride functions in the second of these three categories. By lifting ourselves above others, almost certainly on insufficient grounds, we serve as agents of divisiveness. In truth, we are far more alike, in almost every way, than we differ. We certainly are more alike in our cosmic ignorance than we differ in our knowledge. With the staggering ratio of 1,500 stars in the heavens for every living human being here on earth, anyone who boasts privileged insider information on the creation or creator is, from a cosmic viewpoint, stretching presumption to its outer limits. When we die, none of us is going to have but the faintest notion what this mystery was all about. Even three score years and ten is barely time to get our minds wet. All of which confirms my favorite etymology: Human, humane, humanitarian, humility, humble, humus. Dust to dust.

When pride brings us together, however, far from being a sin, it is cause for celebration. Our distinguished service award demonstrates this principle better than almost any other I know. It sets its recipient not apart from but a part of the great Unitarian Universalist tradition, testifying to a lifetime of shared effort and shared accomplishment. In my case, it honors a lifetime of learning, and no one learns without teachers. I have had thousands and thousands of teachers, many of them sitting here in this hall right now. You and they, co-members of our chosen faith, have been my lifelines; you have trained me in my lifecraft. and recommitted my energies to repair this great country by invoking the elevated principles of the American creed.

Above all, at least on a personal basis, you have helped me bring God home when my faith was homeless. When I was down you have taken my hand and lifted me up, guiding me, walking with me, kneeling with me when I could only kneel, and lifting the fear from my heart. When the question "Why?," which it often does, admits no answer, we need only ask, "Where do we go from here?" Part of the answer to that question must always include the word, together. My wife Carolyn and our four children have taught me this lesson particularly well, as has my splendid colleague and successor in the All Souls pulpit, Galen Guengerich, but you have too.

Your teaching and my learning continue to this very day. As I negotiate the final chapter of my life, you, especially my All Souls parishioners, have, by your own great strength and courage, taught me the lessons of love and death. With those who have traveled this path before me at my side, I find myself journeying with growing wonderment through the valley of the shadow.

So I thank you this morning, not so much for this award, but for making it possible. I ask you to accept it with me, on all of our behalf. In times of frustration, let us never forget what a privilege it is to be part of this great movement and to pronounce its saving faith: one Light (Unitarianism) shining through many windows (Universalism). Let us continue our quest together, with awe and humility, with saving openness and saving doubt, never forgetting to honor those who charted our way. And let us invest our ongoing quests with a single goal: to live our lives in such a way that they too will prove worth dying for.

I love you, and thank you very much.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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